Thursday, March 31, 2011

just sentencing

The Sentencing Council has launched a consultation on its draft proposals for new sentencing guidelines on drug offences. The overall aim in the words of the council’s chairman, Lord Justice Leveson, is “to ensure that those who are responsible for the most serious drug crime receive the longest sentences and that punishments overall are in proportion to the offender’s role and the amount of drugs involved.” So, for example, someone playing a relatively minor role in supply of a relatively small quantity of heroin or cocaine might not receive a prison sentence.

The reaction from parts of the press has been immediate and, not surprisingly, condemnatory. The Daily Mail commented that pushers of hard drugs are among the most insidious enemies of our society, profiting from misery and degradation and driving countless young people to crime and, all too often, early graves. Some truth in that but, if the DM had seen the far greater number of crimes that are fuelled by alcohol and the damage done by its excessive consumption then it might be equally disgusted by the pushers of that particular drug, who break no laws.

The Sun typically headlined their article Off Their Heads, describing the sentencing plans as “barmy”. But our tabloid guardians may be worrying unnecessarily as, in the proposals, the starting point for supply of even the smallest amount of a class A drug is 26 weeks custody and can go up to 2 years. Yes it can go down to a high level community sentence, but that is unlikely and would be triggered only by very convincing mitigation. A more reasonable focus of the critics of the changes in sentencing could be on the discretion to suspend a custodial sentence, particularly where it is hard not to believe that the government’s aim of reducing prison numbers is a major factor.

Following hard on the publication of the new guidelines was the sentence imposed on a drug dealer by a judge at Harrow Crown Court. He gave a 12 month suspended prison sentence to a supplier of cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamine, cannabis and the very nasty crystal meth. Part of the judge’s reasoning was that the defendant “sometimes sold drugs at cost price to other users". Yeah right. He supplied what the new guidelines define as medium quantities of several Class A drugs and the starting point is 4 years custody. Why this was reduced to 12 months and then suspended seems hard to explain and has provoked understandable criticism from the press.

Whereas magistrates must follow sentencing guidelines and give clear and detailed reasons for any rare departures from them, judges feel themselves less constrained to follow, or even refer to them, and this is how inconsistencies and anomalies arise. If the more maverick approach of judges is allowed to continue then the Sentencing Council must consider whether such prescriptive sentencing guidelines for very serious crimes are worthwhile.



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